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Tollways to Freeways?

Tollway to freeway: Can it be done? 
It's the $303.6 million question Gov. George Ryan wants to answer.

The amount represents what it likely would cost the state this year to
dismantle the Illinois Tollway and run it as a freeway. Of the
$373.6æmillion the tollway is collecting from motorists, oases and interest
income, $70æmillion covers toll collection costs.

The rest, tollway officials say, pays for maintenance, resurfacing and
construction costs on the 276-mile-long system. It also covers annual
payments on bonds sold to fund construction of the North-South Tollway,
widening of the Tri-State Tollway and an extension of the East-West Tollway.

Bond payments this year total $82æmillion.

But while $300æmillion is a ridiculous amount of money to the average
tollway user, it would comprise less than one percent of the state's $42.8
billion budget.

On Thursday, Ryan ordered transportation secretary Kirk Brown to study ways
the Illinois Department of Transportation could take over the tollway
system, thereby reducing or eliminating tolls. But that begs the question of
how the state would replace the $345æmillion annually that comes from tolls,
and the $4æbillion more the Illinois State Toll Highway Authority says is
needed to rebuild and expand toll roads.

"We're just in the earliest stages, and when I say earliest, I mean
early-early," cautioned IDOT spokesman Richard Adorjan.

"He wants to consider the full range of options," added Ryan spokesman
Dennis Culloton. "It's really preliminary. ... There's a lot of work to do."

Suburban lawmakers called on Ryan to prove he's serious by appointing a
panel of experts to look for alternatives to continued tolls.

"I would rather it be addressed that way than by making promises that can't
be backed up," said state Rep. Susan Garrett, a Democrat from Lake Forest.
"By putting together a task force immediately, it would show that he means
business and it's not just political."

The most political opposition to Ryan's idea is likely to come from
downstate lawmakers concerned that they might lose money for their roads or
be forced to pay higher taxes to make up for lost tolls. There also are
legal questions because the tollway's bonds - the last of which is scheduled
to be paid in 2020 - are contingent on tolls being collected.

"I think it will be extremely difficult, both in terms of political
feasibility and practical feasibility," said Thomas Hardy, one of nine
directors on the toll authority's board. "How are you going to pay for it?
There's a higher gasoline tax, which the governor has ruled out. And there's
a variety of political constituencies that would not be in favor of doing

State Sen. Carl Hawkinson, a Republican from downstate Galesburg, said he
will keep an open mind on Ryan's proposal, but doesn't see how it would

"We all drive the toll roads - not as much as you do, but whenever we go to
Chicago - and nobody likes to pay tolls," Hawkinson said. "It appears you
have a $300æmillion gap (to replace the lost tolls and find new money for
tollway reconstruction). I don't see where that money comes from, if you
rule out a gas tax."

But downstate lawmakers wouldn't be affected by a regional tax on the
Chicago metropolitan area, Hawkinson noted. Tollway officials estimate that
tax likely would cost at least a nickel per gallon.

A host of factors could affect the price of a regional tax, Adorjan said.
They include whether tolls are to be eliminated or just reduced; and whether
the money would go to replace just current operational costs or would also
be used to build new suburban highways and replace old ones.

"Nothing is off the table at this point," Adorjan said.

IDOT is in the process of hiring 300 new engineers, technicians and computer
operators to handle the crush of transportation construction from Ryan's $12
billion infrastructure improvement program. The agency operates on a
$6.3æbillion budget.

"I think we have the capability to absorb the tollways," Adorjan said.
"There are already people in place within the tollway system that would be

It would take a suburban power-play to get the money to replace the tolls,
said state Rep. Cal Skinner, a Republican from Lakewood. In his view, taking
the money from downstate would simply reverse the current system in which
suburban gasoline taxes go to subsidize projects in the less populous
downstate region. "The six-county area is being short-changed," Skinner
said. "There's plenty of money out there - you just have to take it from the
marginal projects downstate and move it to the Chicago area." An alternative
to a gas-tax increase is a plan floated by Democrat John Schmidt, a
candidate for governor in 1998. Schmidt advocated abolishing the toll
authority while continuing to collect tolls for about a decade. The money
collected could be placed in a trust fund to support future tollway

"(Tollway officials) say there's no way to do it because they don't want to
do it," Schmidt said. "It's good (Gov. Ryan) is at least talking about it.
The test is will he go through with it."

If Ryan isn't serious, it could mean he's simply trying to insulate himself
from the toll increases that his recently appointed toll authority chairman,
Arthur Philip of Oak Brook, says are inevitable.

"I think there may be some truth to that (scenario)," said Democratic state
Rep. Lauren Beth Gash, a longtime tollway critic. Still, "I'm not surprised
Ryan is saying this because he has talked about the need for smart growth.
The tollway is talking about extensions (of I-355 to the south and Route 53
to the north) that aren't really needed."

Ryan's call for the study comes after his July appointment of Philip,
brother of state Senate President James "Pate" Philip of Wood Dale. Even
before taking the gavel at his first meeting, Philip announced the agency is
looking seriously at increasing tolls - something it hasn't done systemwide
since 1983 - to pay for reconstruction of parts of the system that are up to
42 years old. Ryan immediately spoke against any toll increase. 

Pate Philip wasn't taking sides Thursday in the debate between his brother
and the governor. He will wait to see the details, said his spokeswoman,
Patty Schuh.

"Sen. Philip would love to see freeways. ... It's his constituents who sit
at the tollbooths every day and plunk their money in the box," Schuh said.
On the other hand, "the experts at the toll highway authority believe they
can make a compelling argument on why tolls should be raised. It would be
stupid and naive not to take a look at that."